May 14, 2007


A few posts ago I wrote about withdrawal in relationships and received a comment asking me what to do when you are on the receiving end of withdrawal. In other words, what is a healthy response to a partner’s unhealthy choice to withdraw?

Let me be clear that the type of withdrawal I’ll be talking about is the kind that goes on for more than an hour, is done with an air of contempt, and is done provocatively, meaning they just check out without explaining why or promising to talk about things later. This is different from taking a time out to re-group and get centered.

Unhealthy withdrawal often has a cold shoulder effect to it; the person on the receiving end feels shut out and often shut down. Subsequently, that person will try a number of things to re-engage his/her partner including: begging, pleading, retaliating, giving in to, yelling, shunning them back, and on and on. Because their partner is in withdrawal and behind a wall, these efforts have little, if any, impact. If any of the above does have an impact, it’s usually the giving in that may weaken the walls—not without a price though.

Although giving in or apologizing (even when you know you did nothing wrong) may weaken the walls, it will often lead to resentment. At some point you’ll get annoyed that you’re always the one apologizing. Eventually you get angry that you’re the only one in the relationship who’s willing to be accountable. Ultimately, you get tired.

Instead of pursuing your partner, in any way, or shunning and walling off to them, you want to set limits on the withdrawal and go on with your life. Setting limits means taking care of yourself and not engaging in the chase. Be clear about what you want, what you’re willing to do and not do, and then follow through with your actions. Don’t stop your life because your partner has checked out of theirs’.

The best time to take these steps is when your partner is NOT withdrawing. You want to have a conversation with him/her when he/she is open to hearing it, so it’s best not to do that in the heat of the moment. Choose a good time to talk and then be clear about what is not working for you regarding the withdrawal. Let your partner know that although you realize there are going to be times when he/she is angry with you, it’s not okay with you that he/she acts as though you don’t exist. It’s not okay that he/she withdraws and checks out. Be clear that you would like him/her to take a time out (no longer than twenty minutes) and then come back to discuss things with you. If the twenty minutes isn’t enough, you’re willing to renegotiate for an additional hour—as long as he/she is not being cold, standoffish, or mean spirited.

Next let your partner know that if he/she is not willing to do that, then you will be going on with your daily plans and will not be pursing him/her in any way. If he/she would like to discuss the issue relationally, you would be more than willing to do that. You however, will not be willing to walk around in a toxic environment for hours, or days until he/she calms down. Let him/her know that you will no longer be apologizing to try to smooth things over. You will only apologize if you are sorry.

Set a limit regarding family activities, dinners, parties etc., such that, you will only attend those activities if he/she is no longer giving you the cold shoulder. If you had plans to go to a party, you will go by yourself if you choose to. If your partner decides to go, then you will not go if he/she is being cold or withdrawn towards you.

I would also let your partner know that this behavior is greatly impacting your relationship. Don’t threaten, just share the information from a very centered place. This is a heads up for your partner—and a gift. How he/she receives it is his/her work; how you give it, is your work.

Remember, when it comes to your partner withdrawing, there’s nothing you can do to make him/her stop. There’s plenty you can do in response to their withdrawal however. Stop and think about what you do have control over—you, and then act accordingly. Set limits, be clear with your expectations, and don’t pursue someone who’s acting irresponsibly.

When you pursue irresponsible behavior, you contribute to more irresponsible behavior. Is that what you want to do?

Challenge: If your partner frequently withdraws, realize this is irresponsible and you deserve better. Set limits on it, don’t pursue your partner, and go on with your plans. You will feel better for it and your partner will be stuck to sit in his/her aloneness—alone.


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To the person who has been married less then 1 year: I think you have withdrawal... you're not going with him then you try to justify by saying that he doesnt want you there... why would he invite you if he didnt want you there?

You wanted to get away from him but you're trying to put the blame on him... that's what I think...

Hi: I have been married less than one year. I believe my husbands' MO is to withdraw and I know mine is to deal with it on the spot or at least withinn a reasonable time - and reasonable is a few hours. I understand the need for space. I have a 5 year old (not from this marriage) and I KNOW she senses when I am not happy during this time.

Our fights are usually silly things but never a principle issue, as for example, infidelity or lying, abuse etc. He is quite the "male dog" and perhaps a part of his football days; bad relationships with his parents and his job motivate this behavior.

I know that we judge ourselves by our intent but judge others by their behavior, in addition, we all have our beliefs and perceptions that are not always based on fact. He speaks about accountability, yet Humility is a number one value for me all my life, therefore I have NO problem ALWAYS approaching him to talk; now I have reached the point of resentment and withdrawal myself.

The recent example I could use help with is; we were supposed to go away for 3 days to visit his family. The night prior we had a fight about my dog (that he doesn't like very much). We were talking about how to deal with that issue and I suggested some approaches. But in a smug way he replied "you arent't consistent and do what you want to do anyway" Ok, I agree I haven't been consistent. As a result, he closed his eyes and sat on the lounge chair outside, and this went on for about 10 minutes. I got up and went in to prepare dinner (not really thinking this was a big deal). I said dinner was ready and he replied "I'm not hungry". So the next morning when we were supposed to leave, I decided NO. I'm not going on a 4 hour drive with our daughter to have the cold shoulder and go to his lovely family while he gets the attention and can talk freely and I'm with anxiety. 10 minutes before he left, he aggressively came into my office /den and asked "so are you coming or what?". I very calmly said, "given the last 24 hours I really didn't think you wanted me to" which was true - I didn't think he wanted me there. So he stormed off and left us 3 days ago. He hasn't called and I don't really know when he is coming home.

Having said all that - I'm sure he has his perceptions about what I have said, done or had a pattern of - but nothing like this have I experienced since my Dad doing this to me for the past 15 years after his affair on Mom so perhaps this is a real trigger for me.

May I end with - I teach communication, leadership skills and executive coaching for a living. It's not like I don't have practice at seeing this behavior and coaching around it.

Not so perfect Susan. But just moved to the US to marry my husband and I'm feeling scared and lonely at times.

Thank you for your consideration!

DEAR NOT SO PERFECT SUSAN: You had a great message which was it's not okay for him to just wall off to you and then expect everyone to act as if everything is okay. Your delivery of that message however was off.

Saying you didn't think he wanted you to go was not entirely the truth. You decided you were not going because you did not want to put you or your daughter through the cold shoulder treatment only to later pretend, in front of his family, that things were fine. That however, is not what you said. Instead you made him pay for his silence by retaliating and not going. The retaliation comes in when you don't give him a heads up about not going.

If you don't like the way he withdraws then you need to deal with that head on. If he refuses to listen to you or discuss it, up the ante and be clear that his behavior is hurting your relationship. Let him know that if he's giving you the cold shoulder in the future, you will not go out to dinner, a movie, or to his family's and pretend things are okay. Let him know that you're happy to try to work through the issue with him, and you will do your best to be open to what he says, however you will no longer go along with the silence and just ignore the tension.

When he returns I suggest you have this conversation with him...starting with an apology from you about how you handled your frustration and a clear message that pretending things are okay doesn't work for you and you will no longer play along. If he's open to working it, great; if he's not, you may have to get into couples coaching or couples therapy.

Regarding you teaching this...doesn't that just burn you when us teachers get caught in our imperfections just like everyone else!!!:-) Just remember you're human. Teaching it just means you know what to do; it doesn't mean you don't get triggered and forget to use your knowledge.
Warm regards-Lisa

What about when your partner withdraws with good reason, due to being hurt? How do re-engage your partner? Help them realize that you are truly sorry and want to make things work and are willing to change?

I've realized my wrongs, but he now thinks he's been trying for so long that he can't do anything but leave. Please help!

LISA'S REPLY: When you've done something hurtful in your relationship the first thing you need to do is repair it. This requires that you acknowledge what you've done (from the heart), genuinely apologize for your actions, and then do anything in your power to fix it, repair it, or mend it.

If your anger was the problem, you need to get help with it and show your partner that you are working it. If you've had an affair, you need to let your partner know in a thousand ways that they are the most important thing in your life and you are so sorry you almost threw that away. Whatever your actions were, the answer is to show your partner, in your actions, that you have changed. They need to get that you understand, to your core, the pain you've caused. They need to know that you won't do it again.

On a side note: Unless someone is being verbally or physically abusive, withdrawal is not a healthy strategy in relationships. Responsible distance taking in the form of a time out is fine as long as both partners reingage after the agreed upon time. Anything longer than that becomes retaliation and is toxic.

Ideally issues need to be dealt with directly in a respectful, steady way. Withdrawal just pushes issues to the back burner where they eventually destroy the relationship.

Some times it is better to withdraw. Depending on the severity of the offense or the heinousness of the behaviour, withdrawing will show a person the difference between tolernce and being taken advantage of.

This may sound harsh, but it is better to avoid any and all contact with the person you are withdrawing from if the instances of getting hurt or humiliated are not stopped or dealt with immediately.

Lisa's Reply: If you need to withdraw in the moment for safety, that is one thing, however to withdraw in an effort to send a message to someone is another. I believe that the best way to give a message--is to speak it. Often our silence sends the message that what the other person is doing is okay.
Withdrawing is not direct, it can be passive aggressive, and it is not healthy self care. Be clear with your partner about the behavior that is not acceptable to you and then set limits on it when/if it occurs. This way there is no confusion about your message.

Thank you, Lisa. This is very encouraging :)

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